Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 11, 2017

Another Bitter Ending For The Capitals

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be traveling Sunday, so the next post will be delayed until Monday. Thanks as always for your continued support.

This year was going to be different. The throng of loyal fans who packed the Verizon Center Wednesday night arrived confident that after so many seasons had ended in disappointment and doubt, this time their Washington Capitals were on the way to hoisting the Stanley Cup.

To be sure, many of them hadn’t felt that way just one week earlier. That was when their hated rivals the Pittsburgh Penguins, despite skating without captain Sidney Crosby who was sidelined with a concussion suffered two nights earlier, took Game 4 of the teams’ second round playoff series 3-2. Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury made 36 saves and defenseman Justin Schultz scored the winner on a power play goal midway through the second period. The victory gave the Penguins a three games to one lead in the series, leaving the Capitals on the brink of yet another early playoff exit.

But the ensuing seven days made that defeat seem like so much ancient history. Facing elimination, Washington stormed back in Game 5, rallying from deficits of 1-0 and 2-1. When Evgeny Kutznetsov and Alex Ovechkin scored less than half a minute apart in the third period, the Capitals were on their way to a 4-2 triumph. Then in Game 6 Washington bullied Pittsburgh on the Penguins’ home ice, steamrolling to a 5-0 lead before a pair of garbage time Pittsburgh goals made the final tally 5-2.

Now the series was tied and the Capitals were at home for the decisive seventh game. Coming off their dominating performance two days earlier, Washington had all the momentum and a raucous crowd to cheer the completion of an epic comeback.

So yes, this year was going to be different. Since losing to the Detroit Red Wings in the 1998 Finals, Washington had been to the playoffs twelve times. With superstar and captain Ovechkin on the roster since the start of the 2005-06 season, the Capitals had skated in the postseason nine of the last ten years. In that decade the team won its division seven times and took home the Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular season record in the NHL three years, including the last two in a row. Yet for all that success between October and mid-April, once the Stanley Cup playoffs started the Capitals always came up woefully short. Since that long-ago 1998 visit to the Finals, Washington had never managed to make it out of the second round of the playoffs.

For the Capitals, the nearly two decades of postseason futility began with first round losses to the Penguins in both 2000 and 2001. The two teams met again in 2009’s second round and then last year, once more in the second round. As was the case this year, Washington was the higher seeded team in each of the four previous meetings, but it was always Pittsburgh that moved on to the next round. In 2009 and again last year, the Penguins didn’t stop playing until Crosby and his teammates had lifted the Stanley Cup.

This season the two teams finished their regular schedule with the two best records in the league. Washington had 118 points and a league-best plus-81 goal differential, while Pittsburgh’s record was good for 111 points and a differential of plus-49, fourth highest. Meeting in the Finals would have been appropriate but wasn’t possible since both teams are in the Eastern Conference; but the series between two squads picked by many analysts as Stanley Cup favorites should have at least been for the Conference title. However, the NHL’s playoff format keeps teams from the same division bracketed together through the first two rounds, so here they were in Game 7 at just the halfway point of the playoffs.

And yet the obvious and painful question must be asked. If the NHL’s brackets were set based on conference seeding, as is the case in the NBA, would this year’s Eastern Conference Finals featured Pittsburgh versus Washington? Would the Capitals have found a way to finally make it out of the second round?  For on Wednesday night, skating on home ice before their adoring fans and fresh off a dominating performance against a beaten-up team with the worst possession statistics of all the franchises still playing, Washington came up empty.

The Capitals started well, taking the first four shots on goal. But Fleury, who lost his starting job to Mark Murray this season and was in goal only because of an injury to Murray during Pittsburgh’s first round series against Columbus, handled every one. That allowed the Penguins skaters time to find their legs, and they responded by moving the puck into the Washington zone, evening play by taking the next six shots. The battle remained scoreless until the game’s midpoint. The Capitals failed to clear their own zone and Crosby passed to Jake Guentzel near the left faceoff circle. As the defense collapsed on Guentzel he flicked across to Bryan Rust who quickly found the back of the net before Washington goalie Braden Holtby could slide over to block his shot. What had been a deafening Verizon Center suddenly grew quiet.

Shortly before the end of the second period Ovechkin took a pass from Tom Wilson and launched a one-timer from twenty feet in front of Fleury. So sure was he that the shot was going in that Ovechkin began to raise his arms in celebration. But Fleury caught a portion of the puck with the shaft of his stick, sending it out of play. Then early in the third period the Capitals again turned the puck over in their own zone and Patric Hornqvist beat Holtby to make it 2-0. Suddenly this season was not different at all. For the stunned Washington Capitals and their now subdued fans, another year was ending as they all somehow manage to conclude.

The window may be closing for Ovechkin, one of the greatest players ever to lace up a pair of skates.  He will be 32 by the time the Capitals skate again, and he has been playing professionally since he was just 16 years old. He is not yet ancient, but it seems likely that more great days lie in his past than in his future. After three straight season with 50-plus goals Ovechkin netted just 33 this year. And while he will remain the face of the franchise, five of his teammates will soon be unrestricted free agents and another five are entering restricted free agency, due significant raises if Washington wants to retain them. Changes are coming to the Capitals; just not the one big change that their fans were so certain was finally at hand.

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